In my spare time, and when the thought occurs to me, I enjoy browsing the Digital Video Repository of the Moving Image Research Collections (or MIRC) at the University of South Carolina, a vast online archive of historical film footage, much of which consists of newsreels footage. Often, I’ll just enter some different search terms and see if I can find anything interesting. It was on one such online excursion that I stumbled across a newsreel (or rather outtakes thereof) depicting the arrival of the famed humorist, movie star, and cowboy philosopher Will Rogers in San Antonio, Texas, that caught my attention. I am (as any red-blooded American surely must be) counted among Will Rogers’ legion of admirers, but his presence was not what attracted my interest to the video. Rather, it was the appearance of a background character that struck me as a familiar face.
Of all the countless musical artists active before the Second World War, only a fraction were fortunate enough to have their art preserved on records, and an even smaller fraction recorded prolifically, leaving whatever magical music they produced mostly unheard. That however, does not necessarily imply that those artists who left behind few, if any, recordings were not popular within their own domain. One such artist who achieved considerable note with audiences in his homeland of Texas, but only left behind a precious few recordings was a peculiar, but quite remarkable, bluesman (and my own fourth personal favorite Texas blues musician) known as the Black Ace.
The man later called the “Black Ace” was born Babe Kyro Lemon Turner on the twenty-first of December, 1907 (some sources state 1905), on his family’s farm in the small settlement of Hughes Springs, deep in the farthest northeast reach of the state of Texas—the same region that brought up the likes of Little Hat Jones and Lead Belly. He took up playing the guitar sometime in his youth and began playing the blues by the end of the 1920s in the vicinity of his hometown, and teamed up with the younger Andrew “Smokey” Hogg in the decade that followed. Evidently inspired by Hawaiian-styled blues player Oscar “Buddy” Woods, Turner bought a square-necked National tricone resonator guitar and learned to play steel guitar, using an old medicine bottle as a slide. In the 1930s, he relocated to Fort Worth and began performing on the radio. There, he made his first recordings on April 5, 1936: two sides for the American Record Corporation including his eponymous theme song “Black Ace Blues”, from which he adopted the nickname, but both were unissued and are considered lost. When the Decca record company made a field trip to Dallas early in 1937, Turner recorded again, cutting six sides, all of which were issued this time around (some sources suggest that he traveled to Chicago with Smokey Hogg and Whistling Alex Moore for the session, but they are erroneous). The resulting three records proved to be the entirety of Black Ace’s pre-war recording career, and he would not record again for twenty-three years. In spite of his scant recorded legacy, Turner seems to have enjoyed considerable regional popularity; his radio program lasted into up until the outbreak of World War II, and, remarkably for an early blues musician, he boasted a (very brief) motion picture career. In 1941, Turner had a bit part in Spencer Williams’ race movie The Blood of Jesus, ostensibly portraying himself, first being heard-and-not-seen playing “Golden Slippers Blues”, then appearing as a member of a band performing on the back of a flatbed truck with the devil at the wheel. He was drafted into the Army in 1943, and continued to play music while in the service, but retired from professional musicianship after returning from the war. He was coaxed back in front of the microphone in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver to record an album for Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, thus preserving a further seventeen pieces of his repertoire for posterity. Two years later, he made his second filmed appearance in Samuel Charters’ 1962 documentary The Blues, in which he reprised his theme song “The Black Ace” for the last time. After suffering from cancer, B.K. Turner died in Fort Worth on November 7, 1972.
Decca 7340 was recorded on February 15, 1937 in Dallas, Texas. It is the second released of Black Ace’s three records. B.K. Turner sings and plays his own Hawaiian guitar; he is accompanied by an unidentified rhythm guitar player (possibly Andrew “Smokey” Hogg).
Firstly, the Black Ace plays and sings “You Gonna Need My Help Some Day”, loosely covering Big Bill Broonzy’s “You May Need My Help Some Day” from a year prior—which in turn echoes some elements from Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” of 1935.
On the reverse, he does “Whiskey and Women”, showcasing a bit more of the Black Ace’s Hawaiian-styled blues playing.
On the ninth of February, we celebrate the birth of one of the brightest shining stars in all of country music: the Texas Troubadour, my cousin, Ernest Tubb.
Ernest Dale Tubb was born on February 9, 1914, in the now-ghost town of Crisp, Texas, the son of cotton sharecroppers Calvin Tubb and Ellen Baker, whose mother died while she was still an infant, and her father, purportedly a full-or-half-blooded Cherokee, left to start anew. As a youth, he worked as a soda jerk, but like so many of his generation, hearing Jimmie Rodgers inspired the young Tubb to pick up a guitar and start singing and yodeling. In the middle of the 1930s, Tubb began singing on San Antonio’s KONO, an unpaid job which required him to seek employment digging ditches for the WPA. He soon established contact with Jimmie Rodgers’s widow Carrie (née Williamson), who befriended the young singer and indefinitely loaned him her late husband’s custom Martin 000-45 guitar. She also brought the young Tubb to the attention of the RCA Victor Corporation, for whom Jimmie had recorded. When the record company made one of its field trips to San Antonio in October of 1936, Ernest Tubb made his first recordings, singing solo accompanied by his own guitar on six sides, and accompanying Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers in another one, a tribute to her departed husband. Of Tubb’s solo recordings, only one record was released initially, another tribute to the Singing Brakeman, featuring “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” on the Bluebird label, the others were held back for several years. He was behind the recording microphone for a second time when RCA Victor was back in San Antonio the following March, and he recorded two more solo sides, this time backed on second guitar by his friend Buff Buffington, and another one backing Mrs. Rodgers, all of which were released this time. All Tubb’s Bluebird records sold quite poorly, and it would be several years before he returned to the studio. In 1939, a tonsillectomy instigated a shift from singing to focus greater on writing songs.
Come 1940, Ernest Tubb got a better gig singing on the radio, sponsored by the Gold Chain flour company, but at seventy-five dollars a week, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet. The same year, he also began a new recording contract with Decca, and he made his first records for them at the Rice Hotel in Houston on April 4, 1940, beginning with “Blue Eyed Elaine”, dedicated to his wife. His records continued to attract limited public attention, and Tubb was contemplating throwing in the towel, but things turned around after a 1941 session in Dallas, when his original composition “Walking the Floor Over You” became an unexpected hit. Its success was such that it precipitated a move to Hollywood, where Tubb made a few film appearances, and earned him membership in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1943, an engagement which lasted four decades. Soon, he became known as the “Texas Troubadour”, a name which was later applied to his band as well. He made some patriotic songs of note during the War, such as “Soldier’s Last Letter”, and by the last year of the 1940s, Tubb had charted seven hit records, including an early recording of “Blue Christmas”. Tubb’s music helped to popularize honky-tonk style country music, and earned him a devoted base of fans. His success continued in the decades to come, with hits like 1965’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year. Following a life well spent, Ernest Tubb died on August 14, 1984 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Decca 5958 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on April 25, 1941 and in Los Angeles on October 30, 1940, respectively. On the “A” side, Tubb is accompanied by his own guitar, WBAP staff musician Fay “Smitty” Smith on steel guitar, and an unknown string bass. On “B”, he is accompanied only by his and Dick Ketner’s guitars.
First, Tubb sings the first of recorded versions of his famous hit song, “Walking the Floor Over You”. Real, good, country music.
On the flip-side, Tubb sings a song written by Jimmie Rodgers’ widow, Carrie Williamson Rodgers: “I’m Missing You”.
One of the top names in the territory band game was Sunny Clapp, who led bands all across the southeastern United States in the 1920s and 1930s. However, Clapp’s greatest claim to fame was his 1927 composition of “Girl of My Dreams”, a waltz song introduced by Blue Steele’s orchestra, that made a huge hit in that year, and continues to be sung to this day. In spite of Clapp’s success in his day, surprisingly few details about his life are known today.
Charles Franklin “Sunny” Clapp (not “Sonny”, though frequently called such) was born on February 5, 1899 in either Battle Creek, Michigan or Galesburg, Illinois. A trombonist like his contemporary Blue Steele, he was also skilled on saxophone and clarinet. Clapp played with Ross Gorman’s band in 1926, with Blue Steele in 1927, Jimmy McHugh’s Bostonians and Slim Lamar’s Southerners in 1928 and ’29, and possibly Roy Wilson’s Georgia Crackers in 1931, alongside an impressive array of important jazzmen including Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, and Benny Goodman. Brian Rust also suggested that he may have played tenor saxophone with the Six Brown Brothers in 1916, at the age of seventeen, though that seems rather dubious to say the least. His composition “Girl of My Dreams” became a major hit in 1927. Around the end of 1928, Clapp organized a territory dance band of his own, dubbed his “Band o’ Sunshine”, which featured the talents of Texas cornetist Tom Howell and New Orleans clarinettist Sidney Arodin, and for one session, Hoagy Carmichael. They recorded in San Antonio, Texas, Camden, New Jersey, and in New York, first for Okeh in 1929, then for Victor until July of 1931, with some of his later records appearing on the short-lived Timely Tunes label, and presumably also toured across the Texas region. During the years of the Great Depression, Sunny Clapp disappeared from the recording industry, and whatever became of him thereafter is now lost to time. All that is known of Sunny Clapp’s later life is that he died on December 9, 1962 in San Fernando, California.
Okeh 41283 was recorded June 20, 1929 in San Antonio, Texas by Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine. The Band O’Sunshine consists of Bob Hutchingson on trumpet, Sunny Clapp on trombone and alto sax, Sidney Arodin on clarinet and alto sax, Mac McCracken on tenor sax, Dick Dickerson on baritone sax, Cliff Brewton on piano, Lew Bray on banjo, guitar, and violin, Francis Palmer on tuba, and Joe Hudson on drums. Trumpet player Bob Huchingson provides the vocal on both sides.
On the first side, “they made her sweeter than sweetest of sweet things”, and made “A Bundle of Southern Sunshine”, played in a style quite reminiscent of Blue Steele’s, and capped off with Clapp himself exclaiming at the end, “let the sun shine.” If this wasn’t their theme song, it should have been.
The flip side, “I Found the Girl of My Dreams”, is not Clapp’s famous composition, but rather another of his compositions in the same vein. In fact, if these two sides are anything to go by, he really loved to write songs about girls of one’s dreams.
With a repertoire ranging from ragtime to pop songs, the eight songs recorded by the Dallas String Band are incomparable to most anything else on shellac records, and indeed are very difficult to categorize—they’re sometimes characterized as “pre-blues”, but none could technically be classified as blues songs, they bear some resemblance to white Texas string band music, and they’re all listed in Rust’s Jazz Records discography—but they are surely among the most fascinating music ever preserved. It probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to presume that their music bears substantial similarity to rural Afro-American music of the nineteenth century.
A fixture of the Dallas blues scene during the 1920s, playing music that could perhaps best be described as a ragtime-rooted precursor to blues music, the Dallas String Band was primarily made up of vaudevillian songster Coley Jones on mandolin, bassist Marco Washington, and guitarist Sam Harris, with a few transient members joining in occasionally. They were said to have sometimes employed a clarinet or saxophone, occasionally featured trumpeter Polite “Frenchy” Christian, and Blind Lemon Jefferson was also said to have sat in from time-to-time, though none of them ever appeared on any of the group’s records. The band’s repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, including such songs as “So Tired” and “Chasin’ Rainbows”, as well as popular songs like “Shine” and “Sugar Blues”. Every December from 1927 until 1929, Dallas String Band recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas, ultimately resulting in a total of eight recorded sides—not including side-operations by its members—all of which were released. The group gained posthumous attention when their “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.
The band’s leader, Coley Jones, was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s, though little is known of his life. He was born most likely in the 1880s, and may have been in Dallas by the turn of the century. As an itinerant musician, playing in medicine show type venues, his repertoire consisted largely of folk songs and old minstrel tunes like “Drunkard’s Special” and “Traveling Man”. In addition to the Dallas String Band, Jones was a member of a jazz band by the name of the Satisfied Five, which also included noted drummer Herbert Cowans, with whom he broadcasted on WFAA and played at the famed Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Following his brief recording career—which resulted in a twenty-one sides in total, solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac, and with the Dallas String Band—Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s. Marco Washington was born on June 30, 1886 in Marshall, Texas. He worked as a porter in a dry goods store in Grand Prairie and served in World War I prior to becoming a full-time musician. He played bass in Henry Williams’ String Band from Marshall before moving to Dallas. Purportedly, he taught his stepson, Dallas native Aaron Walker—also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, later shortened to simply “T-Bone Walker”—how to play guitar and several other instruments. He died in Dallas from complications of hypertension on December 30, 1952. Sam Harris was born in Palmer, Texas, on April 19, 1889. In addition to his musical activities, he worked as a laborer in Waxahachie. His later whereabouts and activities are undetermined.
Columbia 14410-D was recorded on December 9, 1928 in Dallas, Texas. The Dallas String Band is made up of Coley Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, probably Sam Harris on guitar, and Marco Washington on string bass. Rust lists an unknown second mandolin, which Mack McCormick speculated as being Jones’ little brother “Kid Coley”, but I’m not so sure that more than one is present.
On the first side, they play the sublime “Chasin’ Rainbows”. I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit to place this song easily in my top ten favorite recordings. The song is perhaps better known by the cover version by R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders to audiences outside of, well, R. Crumb (and the few of us out there like him).
On the reverse, “I Used to Call Her Baby” is another pleasing raggy number, played this time with a little more pep.
Updated on May 6, 2019.